[22:38] Trust was a fragile good. Hanging on by a thread, it had just barely survived first contact with Valcen, but he nurtured it aggressively and fervently, knowing that if he lost it, he would do something he would regret and end up back in the same unpleasant incarceration as before.
Not that he was anything but incarcerated here.
Ryrha had long since taken to probing the precise confines, pursuing 'social experiments' wherein she took to exploring Katal on Tanak's leash and with his blessing, subservient to the Nayabaru to a fault, trying to glean to what degree she may be able to rely on them not trying to torture her if they were left alone with her in a room.
[22:39] It was reckless, but the appeal was obvious – it wasn't more dull, passive lounging around in Valcen's lair.
The lair itself was to be split, Baishar had learnt – there would be walls soon, and they would have better control over the lighting once the refurnishing concluded. In the meanwhile, they acquired crude toys to entertain themselves – little spring-driven, stylised ceratopians to hunt across the room if they pleased, or a block of wood to ineffectively scratch at their leisure.
Perhaps not quite immune to such paraphernalia, Baishar nonetheless felt understimulated.
He'd asked first Valcen, then at Valcen's urging Tanak, for a book that might teach him something. Tanak had spoken to Valcen as one might to someone's guardian, gathering advice, and returned with books meant for children – something to learn written Naya, rare but important as that was, then something about Nayabaru understanding of physics.
[22:40] Valcen had suggested it might be a good starting point to pursue his interests – not that Baishar had made his interests explicit, but the havnateh apparently had noticed that keeping Baishar away from the science of it all would only end in tears. In either case, if Valcen bore a grudge, it was invisible – he seemed consistently friendly and encouraging... when not pushed.
Deciphering written Naya took practise, but the book on basic physics was more interesting than the other, so Baishar simply read that, very slowly and with utmost concentration.
And so when one day while Ryrha was meandering about, Valcen's voice scattered formlessly through the corridors as he returned from an excursion of his own, there was no particular reason to look up in anticipating of greeting him.
Until with increasing clarity of Valcen's voice came a motion creeping into the room at the edge of his vision that seemed altogether too abstract, as though someone had drawn a stick-figure of some long-limbed animal and imbued it with life.
[23:49] The process of understanding the books Tanak had brought was laborious. He had to 'sound' out each word to himself, piecemeal, his tongue and jaws making the motions with barely a whisper behind them. His understanding of Naya was only moderate, but sufficient to understand the simple terminology used in the book. Progress was slow, but diligent. It wasn't as if he had anything better to do.
More importantly, it helped him lay a groundwork of trust in Valcen. He could look at this book and believe Valcen had at least some of his best interests at heart. There was promise of true understanding here, even if most of what he'd read so far was unsurprising — most, but by no means all. So long as he kept that in mind — so long as he avoided dwelling on the other parts of Valcen's plan — he could keep that critical, tenuous thread of trust alive.
A part of him registered the approaching sound of Valcen's voice in the background, but he was halfway through a sentence, too focused on the sigils in front of him to pay conscious attention to what was being said, or to whom. Maybe Tanak and Ryrha were back? At first he ignored the motion at the edge of his vision, but the shapes incessantly tugged at his attention. After a moment or two, he gave in to the distraction, gaze shifting up to the entrance to the room.
[23:55] The visitor tagging along with Valcen had far too many limbs. The proportions were all wrong, stabbing into his gut as an instinct that screamed for him to run, unbidden, scorching away any rational thought that might protest otherwise. Every motion carrying Terenyira further into the room was impossibly alien, a smooth shift of geometries that had no right to be alive.
[00:23] For a moment, Baishar was perfectly still, breath caught in his chest, eyes wide despite the overwhelming brightness. Then the instinct kicked in, terror at how exposed he was, and he sprung to his feet and darted into the tent, abandoning the book and scrambling to get as far away from the eight-legged nightmare as the walls would allow. He grabbed a pillow or two on the way, erected them into a makeshift hiding spot, and pressed himself into the ground as much as it would allow, trying to silence his breathing. His eyes never left the flap of the tent.
[00:41] Whatever conversation his questionable benefactor and the Karesejat were having petered out as Baishar scrambled for cover, guided by instinct. An oppressive silence crept along Baishar's spine, whispering a promise of the monstrous creature's approach.
[00:42] In the crisp silence, the Karesejat's query could not have been more clearly audible. "...your associates do know of my involvement, I hope?" Terenyira asked Valcen.
"...they should?" Valcen's voice answered, tentatively, a sick worry laced through the words, as though he were briefly struggling to recall whether he'd announced that the Karesejat would occasionally be visiting. Of course, he certainly had said this, but that did nothing to dampen the fine detail that she was actually here.
Terenyira's forelimbs twitched, reaching very slightly into the direction of the tent, perhaps product of an aborted plan to walk across to the (poorly) hidden kavkem. The silence expanded again, stifling. Finally, Terenyira asked: "What is the kavkem's name?"
"Baishar, Karesejat," Valcen responded.
"Quaint," the spider spoke. "One naturally wonders if he chose the name himself, or if it was given to him," she mused aloud, although altogether subdued, clearly meaning it as a remark that required no further comment.
Then she raised her artificial voice, that subtly alien modulation, to clearly address Baishar from afar, in flawless Kendaneivash: "Tsiru-Baishar, <I'm not here to harm you. I understand your instincts claim otherwise, but know you need not fear me.>"
[01:21] The tense silence continued, Baishar staring at the edge of the tent and the hints of shapes outside. What is she doing here? As soon as the question occurred to him, the answer was obvious: She was checking in on Valcen's work. This was about Valcen, not Baishar. Still, he couldn't quite convince his gut that this was true. You're looking at a havnateh, goddess of qanu for the Nayabaru and yria for the kavkema.
Eventually, his rational mind convinced his gut that he really wasn't so well-hidden that staying silent was going to do him any favors. A shallow, unsteady breath, then a quiet "Sova" spilled from the tent. You're welcome to claim you won't harm me, Karesejat. It doesn't mean that I will believe you.
[01:35] And then, as though to prove that she had meant what she said, her attention shifted invisibly but obviously to Valcen, with them continuing the conversation they had begun somewhere outside of Baishar's perceptive range.
"If you're struggling with the electronics," Terenyira was commenting. "I'd be happy to assign a Darhal to this project."
"That's unlikely to speed things up – the problem is in the execution, in the transfer from the specification into the actual fine-grained circuits. I give these to Tanak and they're executed, but more often than not, it seems some subtle misunderstanding causes the result to be non-functional. It's chronologically expensive."
And on the conversation went for a while, Terenyira patiently laying out the constraints of their agreement to Valcen – most notably, it seemed to contain that he was not to leave the Katal Pens, therefore any visit to the quasi-industrial facilities building the individual elements of his projects was out of the question.
At some point, the Karesejat and Valcen had discussed specific design constraints of his future eye, and the conversation died as he tinkered with the object, trying to make her suggestion work.
And then, a thin shadow fell across the tent's side, and one of the spider's limbs tapped against the fabric, announcing herself. Appended to the gesture came the surreal enquiry: "<Quite all right in there?>"
[02:39] For a few minutes, the tension in his gut remained, half convinced that at any moment the Karesejat would change her mind. He listened closely to the conversation, more to convince himself that she was distracted than to eavesdrop.
Eventually, it became clear the attention had shifted. He had some breathing room, some time to let his terror slowly tire itself out. He took deep breaths, suppressed his urge to let out a whimper of distress. He should still stay silent, if only so he wouldn't attract undue attention to himself.
Just as it felt his panic beginning to subside, the light tap of a single slender limb on the fabric of the tent sent a jolt through him. The question prompted confusion, his mind struggling to understand what she was doing. Why do you care? a part of him asked. Another part, What do I say to make you go away? After an uncomfortably long silence, he managed a soft "<I'm fine.>" An obvious lie.
[02:53] "<I'd like to have a chat with you, if you don't mind,>" the ghastly apparition remarked, in a casual tone that made it clear that 'if you don't mind' was a supposition included purely out of polite manner. The Karesejat, of course, could not be particularly used to being denied her pleasures. "<I do prefer to know about the guests I'm hosting, especially in the long term.>"
[03:53] A creeping sense of dread clawed into his gut, whispering promises of regret. And what happens if I decline? At best, she might find ways to make his future life difficult. At worst.... he didn't want to imagine. He inhaled deeply, tongue tracing nervously across blunted teeth. He would have to be careful here — sooner or later, they would be enemies. "<What do you want to know?>"
[04:06] The limb drifted down, slid its tip in under the fabric and pulled it up in enough of a fold to lance a shaft of artificial light through the soothing shade. Apparently speaking with the Karesejat involved at least an attempt of eye contact, although even just the bright light made that unlikely to yield success.
"<You're assisting Valcen,>" the Karesejat observed, her tone soft, encouraging, but curious all the same. "<What are your motives?>"
[23:15] A fresh terror sank into him. Of course the very first question she asked would be the very question he didn't want to answer. There were legends that Ka resejat could look into a kavkem's soul to see their greatest fears, then bring them to life — legends that, knowing Valcen's plan and Terenyira's interest in it, he now realized couldn't be entirely true. Nonetheless, She saw many things — enough that lying to her was surely foolish.
And yet, he couldn't tell the truth. He couldn't declare his goal of apotheosis to the enemy; surely it would only end in misery if he did — if not immediately, then eventually. What could he say? A partial truth, perhaps? It might at least buy him some time. "<Valcen... offered a place that was not a cell, and relative freedom from the Hesha, in exchange for my assistance.>" He of course neglected to mention I'd have the opportunity to meet the Karesejat if I accepted.
Surely, she wouldn't believe that was his entire reason. He enumerated his options for what he could say next. Valcen knew things that he wanted to learn. Valcen was a god stripped of his power, and he wanted to help restore him. Valcen intended to help Tamachelu... maybe not that one. He hoped that Valcen would one day save the kavkema... a laughably unlikely possibility.
[00:08] A tense silence expanded into an uncomfortable pause. ...did she expect him to continue on his own? Reveal his thoughts without further prompt?
But when no elaboration was forthcoming, she seized the reins of the conversation once more.
"<As I understand, Valcen offered 'a place that is not a cell and relative freedom from the Hesha' to several other kavkema,>" the Karesejat observed, her body inscrutably still, her tone remaining conversational. "<All of whom declined his offer. I'm led to surmise you have at least one additional motivation.>"
[06:32] Baishar shrunk in on himself slightly, uncertain how to parse Terenyira's tone. Annoyed? Impatient? He couldn't detect either, and what he could see of her shape didn't give any indications of her thoughts. How clearly could she see through him?
Cautiously, he proceeded through the conversation, hoping not to get caught in a trap. "<I couldn't say why others declined,>" he commented. "<I know what he is. What he was.>" He lingered on that for a moment, eyes focused on the carapace, forcing himself to stare into the face of horror. You did this to him, didn't you? He could feel a fire burning in his chest, a strange sense of courage. "<And I know what he will one day become.>" One day, he will betray you. One day, he will help Tamachelu. I don't know how, I don't know when, but he will. "<I intend to help him become what he needs to become.>"
[22:46] Two curled syllables of amusement punctured the silence, a subdued chuckle not quite crisp enough to appear either haughty or perturbed. "<You know what Valcen was?>" Terenyira asked, in a tone so pitying that it rattled aggressively at Baishar's fragile worldview. "<I'm sure you think so, but not even Valcen knows what he was.>"
To Baishar's perception, clear as if she'd explicitly stated it, a dark promise rang between the lines: He's losing himself, Baishar. There's nothing you can do to stop the process.
[19:30] The pitying tone drove a spike through his worldview. How much of what he knew was true? How much of Valcen's memories were still there? "<I know he was a god...>" he began, though even that was uncertain. How tattered were Valcen's memories? Could they be trusted? You have to trust them. But even if he took that for granted, he couldn't even say with certainty what kind of god Valcen had been. He had a strong guess, certainly, but that was different from knowledge.
He struggled to find the courage he'd felt such a short time ago. Instead, he only found a dangerous curiosity. The way she'd said it, it sounded like she knew. Could he trust what she'd say? Should he ask? Could he stop himself from asking? The answer couldn't possibly be worth it. And yet he had to know. "<...What... What was he?>"
[19:57] Terenyira seemed to consider the question for a long time – a duration that belied any pure arrogance on her part. If Valcen had been something that he himself no longer comprehended, what words would sufficiently convey his nature to Baishar now to grant him a suitable impression?
"<Valcen was...>" – A soul, perhaps. That which you creatures of flesh lack. That of which I possess only a splinter. – "<...a fractal spirit,>" – Delicious. Richer in taste than anything you could fathom. – "<beholding the layers of reality simultaneously.>" Although... not quite simultaneously enough to save himself.
"<Having no senses to approximate it, he necessarily doesn't remember what that's like.>" ...the eye, then! Was that why he was making it? "<And he lived for billions of years – billions, Baishar, if you can grasp that number, finite though it may be – so many orders of magnitude longer than any kavkem or Nayabaru.>
"<How many of the memories from that vast time do you think fit into his kavkem skull? What infinitesimally tiny fraction of Valcen do you think remains? What fraction of his most important traits do you think he managed to conserve? How much of Valcen do you think you're talking to? Give me an estimate.>"
[02:12] The answer had a familiar feel to it, hovering just at the edge of comprehensibility. Hints at the ineffable. It was as if she'd peeled open his past, sifted through it, designed her words to fit into his worldview. Coming from any other entity he'd ever encountered, it might seem gracious or thoughtful; instead, it simply reinforced Terenyira's terrifyingly insightful reputation. How much of this is an illusion? How much do you really know? It can't be everything.
It didn't matter. What Valcen had been — nateh or havnateh or whatever a kranaki-yirh was, whatever those insufficient labels might be able to designate — the Valcen he knew was just a shred of it. How could he be more? And yet, even a shred of a god could make a difference in a way a kavkem could not.
"<What does it matter, if he is a tenth or a millionth of Valcen-That-Was?>" Baishar replied quietly, his gut knotting in on itself. "<He's the closest thing. The path may be hard, but it is present. It is possible for him to recover what he's lost. He may not be the same as the Valcen-That-Was, but he will be the Valcen that remains.>"
[02:22] By one measure, Baishar was ignoring her question. By another, he was providing two estimates. A tenth of Valcen-That-Was. A millionth of Valcen-That-Was. If they represented the lower and upper bounds of what Baishar assumed could be true, the mortal was certainly on the right track.
"<Perhaps,>" she simply conceded, her tone carrying an invisible knowing smile. "<Let us then both hope you won't be disappointed when what he becomes isn't anything like how you imagined him to be.>"
[03:02] Baishar shuddered, pulling his limbs closer into his body. You don't know what he's going to become, he insisted. She knew. There's no way you can know. She was a Havnateh. Was the future transparent to her as well? It might explain why she could know so much and still need Valcen to pry the secrets from kavkem minds.
Baishar's eyes squeezed shut, blocking out the world. He had to trust Valcen. He couldn't recall at the moment why that was so important, but he held it as close to his chest as he could. She's trying to make you doubt him. Was she? Was she just flaunting her cruelty to kavkema? Could he honestly claim to be able to grasp the motivations of a Havnateh? Could he honestly expect to be able to so much as withstand a conversation with one, and leave his worldview intact?
[03:28] At the edge of his perception, wrapped tight around his introspection as it was, the needle-like shadows of Terenyira's limbs crept forward like an illusion of perspective. The tips of two limbs, like threatening spears, paused a few inches from his body, hovering in a cautious prowl.
Wordlessly, they slid back to their previous configuration.
[03:29] It was easy to unsettle Baishar – a tender rattle at his cosmology was all it took. It would be easy to rend him the rest of the way down, but there was simply no need to torment him. There was a fervour there, a fire; it would make him a useful asset to Valcen, supply a reservoir of energy that the bland restraints of his environment would otherwise not offer.
It also made him dangerous. Of course, such was the nature of the entire Valcen scheme. Baishar would likely become dangerous well before Valcen became dangerous, driven by the mortal urge to matter in his lifetime – and the same drive would make him make mistakes that should make him easy to handle.
No, she didn't need to threaten him into compliance, nor plot anything in particular to disable him when the time came. She could show him genuine kindness, even if he would certainly reject it. "<In either case,>" she said. "<You have my hospitality and, should it interest you when our paths cross again, my supportive attention up to a point.>
"<Since it's fairly clear you won't dare request any of it in future, however, I will grant you a boon here and now: You may ask any one question and I will do my best to answer it.>"
[04:09] As the creeping shadows came closer, instinct tore him from his introspection, eyes suddenly open. Before he was fully conscious of it, he flinched away from the hovering spears, eyes darting back and forth between them, the terror in his body language obvious even to an observer who lacked Terenyira's insight. The limbs retracted, bringing their promise of torment with them, and the terror lessened a tiny amount.
The offer made him bolt upright, eyes widened in a mixture of fear, shock, and confusion. "<What?>" Any question? "<...Why?>" Why are you suddenly being kind to me? Is this a trick? A short pause later, he sheepishly clarified: "<...That isn't my question.>"
[04:17] "<I asked you your motives,>" Terenyira explained, in the patient tones of a teacher. "<I understand enough of them now that I'm willing to extend my hospitality to you, as mentioned earlier. Hospitality usually includes at least the one or other polite gesture. And you are a seeker of knowledge, are you not? So ask a question and I will gift you an answer.>"
[22:15] This was not something Baishar was prepared for. How could he ever have known his life might come to this? Who would predict he'd have an opportunity to ask a question of a Havnateh, of Karesejat Terenyira, and to expect an answer? This may be the most important thing you ever do. Make it count.
And yet. This still had all the makings of a trap. Was this intended to influence him? To learn his true motives by getting him to tell her in the form of a question? An extension of hospitality. But what is the price of your hospitality, O Karesejat?
He was tempted to take as much advantage of this 'hospitality' as he could. But her reply made it clear this was still part of a social game, and this would not be the last encounter he had with the Karesejat. So 'What is your greatest weakness' or the like was probably a bad idea; he might claim it would reveal too much, if he weren't at least partially convinced that she already knew everything about him.
There were questions about the nature of gods starting to bubble in his mind — some part of him was beginning to question what he knew, or thought he knew. But none of them were yet well-formed, nor did he think himself ready to hear the answers. One is never ready — can never be ready — to know the Truth. But he had to at least understand the questions, and he didn't yet.
What else could he ask? What could he ask that he couldn't ask Valcen? Her motivations? Why she allied herself with the Nayabaru? (She was a Havnateh, that was what they did.) What she was hoping to get out of this... 'arrangement' with Valcen? (Valcen at least thought he knew.)
And then there was the one gap in his knowledge he knew about — what happened to the Valcen-That-Was. Valcen knew the answer — or at least, believed he knew the answer. He'd hinted at it — most of him had been destroyed, and the Karesejat had been involved. Ryrha had said Valcen would be willing to tell him, if he asked, and he so far hadn't dared to ask. Even if Valcen knew, he probably didn't know the entirety of it. Terenyira
probably did. Perhaps if he understood it, truly understood it, he could learn how to prevent the same from happening again.
Externally, Baishar was silent for a long time, his gaze darting around the interior of the tent, trying to avoid the terrifying image of the enormous spider. When he finally spoke, the voice was quiet, the words laced with terror: "<What... happened to the rest of Valcen?>"
[23:09] The memory of what Baishar was asking her about threatened to overwhelm Terenyira's cognition, adding a fire to the edge her rekindled hunger that raked itself through her mind. And yet, it was like a pleasant scent, alluring, mesmerising. With effort, the Karesejat sorted her thoughts about it.
"<Valcen was the joy in my life,>" she revealed, softly, as though confiding a secret in Baishar, "<for as long as he lasted me. For as long as there were memories to dissolve.>" A sound like a single syllable of a chuckle, soft, appreciative. "<Longer than his remnant thinks. Far longer, but not quite long enough.>"
As she trailed off into silence, it seemed for a long moment that it might be the full extent of her answer. When her limbs twitched in an abrupt motion, like the startled waking from a dream, she continued with a more detached, less dreamy tone: "<Of course, you can only barely see me, and you have never seen the likes of Valcen... but I am larger than my prey.>"
Prey. Such a casual denunciation of nateha, raw and visceral – allusion to a whole ecosystem well beyond kavkem comprehension.
"<It's easy to hold them still and easy to disable them. But I don't expect you could appreciate the... taste. I don't think you have a comparable sensation. Or, for that matter, a comparable sensation to having your mind gently drained out of you. There's no pain. Just inevitability.>"
[01:24] The confusion from her initial response quickly tipped into an existential terror, driven like a blade through his gut. You destroyed his mind. Dissolved it. Enjoyed dissolving it. For long moments, that revelation seeped through him, the chill lapping at the edges of his perception. Then a sudden twitch of limbs made him jump, an instinctive backwards scramble pressing him against the back wall.
Easy prey. The thought drove a second blade into him, implications buzzing in his mind. A predator of nateha. The scaffolding of his worldview twisted, groaning under the weight of this idea, threatening to splinter. This is what a Havnateh is. To them, our gods are as rodents to us. Had Tkanetar found a way to become like this as well, driving Tamachelu out of the Old World?
"<You ate his memories.>" The words came out as if unbidden, bleeding from the wounds. There was a hollow horror to them, seeking purchase on anything that would offer it. As long as they lasted. Longer than he thinks. How much slow dissolution had Valcen had to endure? "<A billion years of memories and now— just, gone? Is that what sustains you?>" A creeping realization threaded itself through his consciousness. "<...How... how many have you slain?>"
[01:55] An immobile, monstrous form at the edge of the tent seemed to consider his request, physical manifestation of an abstract threat. No breath or visible heartbeat gave away that the creature was even animated, but of course it was. It had spoken to him just moments ago.
And it spoke to him again, in a synthetic voice that gentled itself to something that might, to anyone not endowed with eyes and blissfully unaware of what he had just been told, be a tone of soothing patience: "<One question.>"
[01:56] And her limbs withdrew, beginning to relent from the drapes. Then, a pause in the motion, caught as if by an irrelevant second thought. "<You are my guest, Baishar. Don't forget that, or the privileges it entails. We'll speak again in future; and if your questions remain with you that long, you may ask them then.>"
Story time with the monster was over, then – as respectfully as it could be, but putting no dent into the horrific mental image she'd left him with.
[02:57] Baishar pressed himself to the ground, eyes still locked onto the receding shapes. Don't forget the privileges it entails, nor the precariousness of your situation. There was no vocal reply to Terenyira's comments — there was no politeness or formality he could muster. It was all he could do to stop himself from whimpering.
Too many questions had sprouted from her answer. Was it sustenance that drove her, or something else? Was it only the minds of gods she consumed, or would a mortal mind suffice as well? Why was a predator of gods a defender of the Nayabaru, who abhorred death in all its forms? How many other Havnateha presently existed? How much danger was Tamachelu in? How much danger would he be in, if he succeeded at his goals? What would happen to Tamachelu, if she ever became a Havnateh? Surely she would still protect the kavkema, but would she turn on the other gods to consume them?
All of these questions paled in comparison to the horror that Terenyira's words had evoked, though. Easy to hold them still. Easy to disable them. Easy to eat through a billion years of memory, a taste incomprehensible to mortals. Don't worry, it doesn't hurt. Qasai for the nateha. He covered his face with his arms, and as silently as he could manage, let himself come apart in tears.